Abandonded Cemeteries

Note:  I read this article on the Caswell County, North Carolina Website and thought it was worth passing along to our readers.  Some of you may already know about our efforts to locate the old Forks of Elkhorn Church Cemetery in Franklin Co., KY.  And I am trying to confirm the resting place of my great-great-grandfather and great-great-grandmother, Robert Payne and Martha (Sanders) Ware on a farm in Todd Co., KY.  The cemetery was plowed up several years ago and tombstones piled under a tree.  A few years ago I beat my way through a grossly unattended patch of property once belonging to a Catholic Church near Paducah, Kentucky.  It is very sad and disheartening to know that relatives who live in the vicinity have not taken it upon themselves to reclaim the small site from the strangle-hold Mother Nature has placed upon it.  Kentucky is one of those forward thinking and caring states who revere their ancestors and have enacted several laws in the past few years to make cemetery clean-up and care a priority.
“Towns grapple with tidying forsaken cemeteries

By STEPHANIE REITZ (AP) – Jul 4, 2010

MONTVILLE, Conn. — Almost 125 years ago, 15-month-old Emma Wheeler was laid to rest within sight of her family’s church near a stone wall in a New England cemetery.

The church is now long gone, and the cemetery is abandoned. Over time, the toddler’s grave and the rest of the Montville burial grounds became obscured by shoulder-high branches, brambles and fern fronds.

It’s a scene mirrored at an untold number of abandoned cemeteries nationwide, leaving state and local governments under pressure from residents to clean up the burial grounds out of respect for the dead — without imposing more costs on the living.

Last year, Connecticut joined a number of states that have enacted laws that let towns acquire abandoned cemeteries if they cannot find the legal owners or heirs and if no burials have taken place for generations.

But the new law only allows for the acquisitions and cleanups. It doesn’t require towns to do so or allocate any money to pay for the work.

Likewise, officials in many other states say it’s proven nearly impossible to pinpoint exactly how many abandoned burial grounds exist, much less find the legal owners or shoulder the cost of cleaning them up. Part of the reason: Cemeteries weren’t on tax rolls, so there was little impetus for governments to track their ownership.

Many abandoned cemeteries are the remnants of family farmstead burial grounds. Some were burial grounds for slaves and their descendants, who were segregated from whites even in death. Others are former churchyards abandoned when the churches disbanded or the last sexton died. Some were in frontier territories that were left behind as pioneers moved on.

In Florida, a legislative task force said some counties have more than 100 abandoned cemeteries each, and that thousands of other lost burial grounds probably remain undiscovered.

Researchers a few decades ago estimated that North Carolina had at least 10,000 abandoned cemeteries — a figure that some researchers now think is too low, given the longtime Southern tradition of being buried on the family homestead.

“Especially with the new mobility in the South after World War II, people moved away and there often would be nobody left to take care of the family graves,” said John Clauser, a former archaeologist for the state of North Carolina. “The holly takes over, the yucca starts running wild. Within a few decades, there’d be just about no sign to the casual observer that the graves were there.”

Clauser’s Raleigh-based consulting business, Of Grave Concerns, helps landowners restore or move cemeteries discovered on their property. It’s not a rare thing, he said, especially when corporations buy large parcels and discover a cluster of graves on what they thought was just a patch of undeveloped land.

The cost varies, depending on number of plots, the condition of markers, the type of terrain and whether remains need to be moved.

Connecticut’s law, which went into effect in the fall, lets municipalities take over abandoned cemeteries if no burials have taken place and no plots have been sold in at least 40 years. The cemetery also must have been left without maintenance for at least 10 years, and either the owner can’t be found or doesn’t object to giving up the site.

Michele Pedro, who has explored the remnants of the Montville burial ground in search of her husband’s ancestors, pressed town officials to restore it, resulting in a volunteer cleanup event.

But that’s just a temporary fix.

Montville officials currently have no plans — or the money — to acquire the cemetery, despite having permission to do so through the new law. The land hasn’t been on the tax rolls for centuries because of its status as a burial ground even though its owner, the Chesterfield Baptist Church, disbanded in the late 1800s.

Its graves date to the late 1700s and include veterans of wars dating to the Revolution.

“I find it absolutely horrifying that anybody would disrespect the dead by letting this get so out of hand,” Pedro, of Waterford, said on a recent afternoon as she pushed through branches and brush before the cleanup.

“Even if you don’t care about the dead or about history, it’s only common decency to care at least enough about the veterans in a place like this to give them some dignity,” she said.

Since many such cemeteries aren’t on the tax rolls, chasing down today’s legal owners can be a challenge.

That’s the case in Lowell, Mass., where volunteers are tending a half-acre cemetery on land whose most recent owners of record have been dead for more than a century.

With no taxes to collect, no one has aggressively tried to track down the landowners’ descendants. They probably number in the hundreds and likely have no idea they have a stake in an abandoned cemetery.

In Easton, Conn., the town has taken over three abandoned cemeteries since the fall and paid for the cleanups with grants, donations and an adopt-a-grave program.

“The places were going to rack and ruin and becoming a bit of an eyesore,” said Town Clerk Derek Buckley, also the town’s sexton. “We all felt an obligation to these people because many of them were the founding members of our town.”


Abandonded Cemeteries — 2 Comments

  1. (Comment posted on behalf of Raymond Ware by Administrator)
    Read with interest on problems with old burying grounds.
    When Mother and I were researching in WV, some years ago, there came a sirtuation where one of our members,
    located an old family buring site.
    Over the years the property had been sold, the site marked off, and access denied, violently, by the owner.
    The remaining family members fought, through the local system for access, with little, or no success.
    Finally, a family org was formed, lawyers hired, and the battle went to the courts.
    After several years in the court system,the court ruled the county would establish a right of way to the site.
    The family would maintain both the road and burial site. The owner would allow access on a pre determined schedule for visitations.
    The site is now open weekends, during proper hours.
    I may be mistaken on some of the details, but the result ramains.

    Anyone having visited the cemetery at Habit, KY, recently, please feel free to correct me, as it has been years since our last visit.
    As I recall the site is located immediatly behind the current owners garage. You must use his driveway, then turn and drive around the building, through a gate to enter the site. I was told at the time of our visit that the courts made access possible. please correct me if I am mistaken.

    Old cemeterys are a problem everywhere, it seems.

    Re the WV deal. The court ruled there were to be no more burials at that site.
    Also the road was only a hundred yds long or so from the road to the site.


  2. This is indeed a sad fact of our time. Concrete has taken over so much of our country and they call it progress. So much more to be written on this matter, but better unsaid.


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